Senate Democrats beat a hasty retreat Wednesday from their rejection of Roland Burris as President-elect Barack Obama’s successor, yielding to pressure from Obama himself and from senators irked that the standoff was draining attention and putting them in a bad light. Burris said with a smile he expected to join them "very shortly."
Though there was no agreement yet to swear Burris in, he posed for photos at the Capitol with Senate leaders, then joined them for a 45-minute meeting followed by supportive words that bordered on gushing. The events came one day after Burris had left the Capitol in the pouring rain in a scripted rejection.
Obama had spoken to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday on the need to find a quick solution to defuse the dispute, according to Democratic officials. Reid was told by Obama that if Burris had the legal standing to be seated — despite controversy surrounding his appointment by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — it should be done "sooner rather than later," said an Obama transition aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because the conversation was private.
The dispute had taken on racial overtones after comments by some Burris supporters. The former Illinois attorney general would be the Senate’s only black member following Obama’s departure.
"My whole interest in this experience is to be prepared" to lead Illinois, Burris, 71, said after meeting with Reid and assistant Democratic leader Dick Durbin, himself an Illinois senator. "Very shortly I will have the opportunity to do that."
Neither Reid nor Durbin disputed that, though they had declared with certainty a week ago that Democrats would not seat a senator appointed by a governor now accused of trying to sell the seat. Obama said then, "I agree with their decision."
On Wednesday, only words of good will, with photos, poured forth.
Obama told reporters that he knew Burris, liked him and would be happy to work with him.
The Democratic leaders brought Burris in from the rain and into Reid’s spacious personal office just off the Senate floor for a meeting that had been set up last week. They invited news photographers in to capture the three — Burris in the middle — laughing and chatting.
Reid and Durbin then retreated from their won’t-be-seated rhetoric and cast the dispute as a procedural delay caused by concerns about why Blagojevich made the appointment.
"First of all, understand we don’t have a problem with him as an individual," Reid said of Burris, calling him an "extremely nice" and "forthright" man. "At this stage, the process is working out," he said.
Added Durbin: "I’ve known him for such a long time. We are friends and on a first-name basis."
The embraces reflected a growing expectation among Senate officials in both parties that the former state attorney general eventually would be seated.
As Reid and Durbin described it, the process depends on two developments: Burris securing the right signoff on his appointment papers, plus a sworn declaration that he didn’t offer anything to Blagojevich in exchange for the seat.
"There was certainly no pay-to-play involved, because I don’t have no money," Burris told reporters after his Senate meeting, previewing his sworn answer to that question.
It’s a key issue in resolving the dispute.
Blagojevich is accused of trying to get something for himself in return for the appointment, an allegation he denies. By appointing Burris, he defied Senate Democrats who warned that a taint of corruption would strip credibility from anyone he named to fill the vacancy.
Secretary of State Jesse White also said he would not certify the appointment with his signature, giving Senate Democrats another point of objection.
The entire Democratic caucus then declared they would not seat Burris or anyone appointed by Blagojevich. They also said they would not seat Burris without White’s signature, which Democrats said has been required by the Senate since the 19th century.
The scene Wednesday was a reversal from the day before.
Burris showed up at the Capitol Tuesday to be sworn in with the rest of the 111th Congress but was turned away by Senate officials who said his certification lacked the required signature from White as well as the official seal of the state of Illinois.
Senate Democrats refused to let Burris talk to reporters inside the Capitol but cleared the way for him to hold a news conference just outside. What followed was a bizarre, soggy procession in pouring rain as Burris, his advisers and dozens of news crews crossed Constitution Avenue to the news conference site.
The spectacle, broadcast live and repeated throughout the day, did not sit well with Democrats eager to project unity with Obama and to begin work on an economic rescue package.
Several behind-the-scenes phone calls and public statements later, displeased Democrats had conveyed a clear message to Durbin and Reid: Make this problem go away.
And a public crack appeared in the Democrats’ wall of opposition when Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California said that Blagojevich, however sullied, had the constitutional authority to make the appointment regardless of any Senate rules.
Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday arguing that blocking Burris was unconstitutional.
Further pressuring Senate Democrats were the 41 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who voted unanimously Wednesday that Burris should be seated.
"This is a situation where we have a senator who has now missed out on his first day," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "It’s only fair that he be sworn in immediately. This is a no-brainer."
Senate Democrats weren’t quite ready to do that. But it appeared that all concerned were anxious to step back from the brink of a political and racial confrontation.
The get-to-know-you meeting with Reid on Wednesday was the first of several steps toward seating Burris, Democrats said. Second, the Illinois Supreme Court would have to force White to sign Burris’ certification to comply with Senate rules. Third, Burris would have to give a sworn statement to the state’s impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, which he promised Reid and Durbin he would do.
Finally, the Senate would almost certainly vote on whether to seat Burris, Reid said.
The process still could take several weeks, Senate officials predicted.
Not everyone was encouraged by the situation.
White, the Illinois secretary of state, compared Reid’s actions to "strapping me in a wheelchair and pushing (me) down four flights of stairs."
"I have skid marks," White told The Chicago Tribune.